After a massive, four-decade-long buildup of incarceration disproportionately impacting people of color, a reform movement has made important inroads, says The Sentencing Project in a new report.
The 21st century has seen progress both in reducing the U.S. prison population and its racial and ethnic disparities. The prison population has declined by 25% after reaching its peak in 2009. While all major racial and ethnic groups experienced decarceration, the Black prison population has downsized the most.
The number of imprisoned Black Americans decreased 39% since its peak in 2002. Despite this progress, imprisonment levels remain too high nationwide, particularly for Black Americans, the group contends.
Reforms to drug law enforcement and to sentencing for drug and property offenses, particularly those affecting urban areas that are disproportionately home to communities of color, have fueled decarceration and narrowed racial disparities.
These trends have led scholars to declare a “generational shift” in the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for Black men. This risk has fallen from a staggering one in three for those born in 1981 to a still troubling one in five for Black men born in 2001.
Black women have experienced the sharpest decline in their imprisonment rate, falling by 70% between 2000 and 2021.
Progress in reducing racial disparity in the justice system is incomplete and at risk of stalling or being reversed, The Sentencing Project says.
The group plans a series of four reports examining both the narrowing and persistence of racial injustice in the legal system, as well as highlighting promising reforms.
The first installment presents an overview of trends in prison and jail incarceration and community supervision. The next installment will examine the high levels of contact that police initiate, particularly with people of color, as well as differential crime rates. The final reports will examine key drivers of disparity from within the system and promising reforms from dozens of jurisdictions.